Governor still reviewing truth-in-sentencing legislation

By: - May 3, 2022 7:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee opposed a 'truth in sentencing' bill that conflicts with his criminal justice reform efforts. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee opposed a ‘truth in sentencing’ bill that conflicts with his criminal justice reform efforts. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee would not say Monday whether he will sign a new truth-in-sentencing measure into law after his administration opposed the bill, but he believes “we found a way forward” with the bill’s sponsors.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally transmitted House Bill 2656/Senate Bill 2248, which they sponsored, to the governor on April 25. He has until Friday to sign the bill or it becomes law automatically without his signature.

“We’re looking at that. I think we certainly worked together with the Legislature to find a way forward … and I’ll have more to say about it this week,” Lee said Monday at his alma mater, Franklin High School, where he signed his K-12 funding package into law.

Some lawmakers raised concerns two weeks ago that he would veto the sentencing bill, which passed 86-9 in the House and 20-7 in the Senate, because it conflicts with his criminal justice reform efforts and is expected to drive up prison costs. Speculation focused on a tactic by lawmakers to delay Lee’s K-12 funding plan until he could come to an agreement on the truth-in-sentencing bill, which passed a full week before the school funding plan.

The American Conservative Union told lawmakers it would grade them on their votes, arguing the bill will drive up costs and do nothing to change the lives of inmates. The cost of the truth-in-sentencing bill is estimated to be about $40 million after eight years.

Rather than automatic sentence ranges, the bill requires 100% of the sentence to be served on these violent crimes: attempted first-degree murder, second-degree murder, criminally negligent homicide, vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular homicide, especially aggravated kidnapping, especially aggravated robbery, carjacking and especially aggravated burglary.

A compromise allowed 85% of the sentence to be served on this crimes: aggravated assault involving use of a deadly weapon, aggravated assault, aggravated assault resulting in serious bodily injury or death of another, aggravated assault against a first responder or nurse, voluntary manslaughter, vehicular homicide, reckless homicide, aggravated kidnapping, involuntary labor servitude, trafficking persons for forced labor or services, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, aggravated arson, possessing or using a firearm during a dangerou felony, manufacture, sale or delivery of a controlled substance. Initially, the legislation required those to be served at 100% too without the possibility of parole.

During committee meetings, lawmakers listened to family members of victims who said their loved ones could be alive if their attacker hadn’t gotten out of prison early. Opponents of the bill argued that Tennessee tried the same method in 1994 and wound with prison riots and a federal takeover of the state prison system.

The cost of requiring full sentences is expensive, too, about $40 million after eight years, according to a state estimate, or $80 million, based on a projection by the Department of Correction.

It also conflicts with the governor’s work to reform the prison system.

Lee signed legislation in 2021 that diverts convicts from state prisons, in part by expanding the number of people eligible to go to recovery courts. It also reduced the amount of time offenders are on probation and stopped offenders from returning to prison for violation of parole technicalities.

Another piece of legislation Lee signed into law last year made it easier for people to be placed on parole and set up a stronger support system for those released from state prisons.

Lee declined to say Monday whether he’s concerned the new legislation unravels his criminal justice reform efforts. He also deflected questions about the expense.

“There’s cost with a lot of legislation,” he said. “It’s a determination of whether it’s an appropriate cost or not.”

The Legislature passed a $52.8 billion budget plan for fiscal 2022-23 containing funding to cover the higher expense of longer sentences. The next fiscal year starts July 1.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
“It’s the definition of insanity,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, of the bill. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Raumesh Akbari supported the governor’s K-12 spending plan, but she voted against the truth-in-sentencing measure, calling it a “step backwards” and a return to a “failed policy of the ’90s.”

“It’s like doing the same thing and expecting something different, which is the definition of insanity,” said Akbari, a Memphis Democrat.

The American Conservative Union also worked against the bill, sending a letter to lawmakers letting them know it would be grading them based on their vote. The advocacy group contended the bill would drive up prison costs without doing anything to change the lives of inmates.

Speaker Sexton, though, took to the House floor before the vote and delivered a fiery speech urging lawmakers to consider the feelings of victims’ families.

“You have to send a message that certain crimes are not acceptable in our state,” Sexton said.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.